East from Cuzco to Madre de Dios.

East from Cuzco to Madre de Dios.

This exciting route drops from Cusco to enter one of the most remote areas on Earth. Madre de Dios extends over nearly 80,000 square kilometres, but has less than 50,000 inhabitants. Almost all of it is covered by dense forest, swamp or occasional areas of pampas.

To Madre de Dios

There are, essentially, two routes which access Madre de Dios by road from the Cusco area. (There is another difficult route further South, and both Bolivia and Brazil offer equally difficult routes in.) One of the two convenient routes goes to Manú, the other to the provincial capital of Puerto Maldonaldo. These can be treated as a loop, using the Río Madre de Dios to connect the two: the region has extensive river traffic, and that it is easily possible to go between Manú to Puerto Maldonaldo by boat. Many travel companies will organise connections for you, and this is one of the most exotic loops in the country. One can fly from Cusco to either of these destinations, but this misses the opportunity to see quite extraordinary country. We describe the land circuit.

We begin with the road to Intahuania, which is the jumping-off point for Manú, around eight hours downriver by launch or motorised dugout, the peque-peque. This is best undertaken as a three day trip, to allow time to stop and see the sights on the way. (This is, of course, hard to achieve by public transport, but the dirt road is accessible to those who know how to ride bicycles on such surfaces.) The Boca Manú airfield is 90 minutes by river from the Manú Wildlife centre, making this a possible - if rather pointless - day trip from Cusco.

The road from Cusco passes through Pisac, guarding the Sacred Valley. It rises sharply, giving views of the snow peaks of the Cordillera Vilcanota and Ausengate (6385m). The pre-Inca chullpas (large masonry columns in which dead bodies were placed) at Ninamarca make an interesting visit, not least as they are architecturally quite distinct from the much better known puna chullpas. There are excellent views from the site.

The road descends steeply into the Paucartambo valley. This brings the pretty colonial town and the river of the same name, both set in dry but attractive valley surroundings. The river is used for rafting, usually starting up-river at Ocongate and ending here. The town has adequate hotels and facilities.

Paucartambo is the provincial capital. It has its patronal - a major local festival - on 15-16th July, celebrating the Virgen de Carmen. The Virgen was lost to the river when, three centuries ago, a group carrying it was attacked by marauders from the deep jungle. It was later recovered and re-instated. Since then, the figure is said to be able to predict the future by the colour of its face when it is processed around the town: rosy for good fortune, pallid for problems ahead. It is also seen as being miraculous in its ability to grant wishes.

Click here to see a series of images The chief function of the fiesta is, however, for the masked dancing troops to perform, an act which carries overtones of cultural self-definition and duty to the community. This event is vitally important to its participants in a way that the Cusco festivals no longer are. The dances are syncretic - blend Christian and local mythology - and are often direct commentaries on the situation in which the serranos find themselves.

The festival consists of several days of masked dancing, feasting and processions. Dances such as the Maqt'as and Qoyacha are confined to the area, and much of the event is a celebration of the 'true' traditions of the Andes. The dances contain a number of important figures: Saqras represent the Devil - who try to tempt the Virgen - and these are eventually seen off by Qhapaq Qolla, representing the altiplano peoples, the collas.

Click here to see a series of images Extremely strange animal figures prance around, and people dressed and masked as everything from Nineteenth century latifundistas to bull fighters are satirised. Dances address farm fertility, satirise the mestizo population and even recall the War of the Pacific. One striking dance has the participants leaping bonfires made from corn straw - representing the harvest - followed by fireworks. This occurs the night before the major celebration, so it is as well to arrive early.

The third day has a special dance in the cemetery, honouring the dead who once danced for the community. The captions on the photographs give more details of all these.

The road beyond the town follows the river downstream for a few kilometres before rising steeply to cross a ridge of mountains. This crosses the Acjanacu pass (4000 m), surrounded by treeless puna, covered in golden ichu grass with views forward to the cloudscapes over the jungle, far below. There are a number of archaeological sites to the East and short of the pass, and several small alpine lakes set near to it. You may chance upon local people, and will note that some of the men still wear the traditional upside-down cone hats that were worn from well before the time of the Incas.

Click here to see a series of images The road contours down and, as it drops, it passes into much wetter terrain, dropping into valleys and climbing over ridges into an increasingly tropical landscape. The early stages of the descent do, however, encounter quite extraordinary mist forest, with a wealth of wildlife. Butterflies and hummingbirds are particularly dense in this area of sudden mist and harsh sunlight, scrub and elfin forest which rings to birdcalls that are strange to unaccustomed ears. Orchids and other epiphytes are at their richest around 1500m. Tree frogs and ferns abound in the wetter areas.

The descent largely ends at Atalaya (400m), which also marks the border of Madre de Dios. This is a small, tropical township with limited facilities, and many who linger here will camp. The town does, however, offer many walks and river trips into the Alto Selva, the less extreme high jungle where things do not bite quite so frequently as they do lower down! Intahuania is another 50 Km over rough but level road, passing through bamboo, intermittent forest and roadside settlements. As already mentioned, travel to Manú (295m) takes a further eight hours by boat.

The surroundings of Manú are described below. The town has grown extensively from humble river-side origins and there are many places to stay in it and around it, the majority explicitly organised for access to the wildlife of the forest.

Click here to see a series of images Travel down river to Puerto Maldonaldo is, once again, easy to organise. There are public vessels plying the stretch of the river and many options for private charter. There are many small settlements, but the only one of any size on this lengthy journey is Madre de Dios. This has extremely limited facilities. The Inambare river joins from the West just before the village of the same name. It is usually dense with silt from the extensive gold workings upriver, and the area between here and Puerto Maldonaldo has a name for violence. Labarinto is a small port ten kilometres East that has access to the main road to Cusco, and it the centre of local commerce.

Puerto Maldonaldo is a further 30 Km downstream. As has already been mentioned, it was founded as a centre for rubber exploitation during the Nineteenth century boom, and then suffered a reverse. Its income now comes from timber, brazil nuts, tourism and small-scale gold exploitation, and it is not particularly attractive. However, it has the strongest facilities in the region, be they medical, accommodation, communications or a tourist infrastructure. It connects by road to Cusco and further into the jungle, accessing Bolivia.

The town lies in a complex turn of the Río Madre de Dios, where the Río Tambopata joins it. The Río Tambopata gives access to the Bahuaja-Sonene National Park within the much larger the Tambopata-Candamo Reserve. Both of these are more "vertical" than the Manú area, and are arguably much less developed for tourism. However, their level of biodiversity is at least up to that of Manú, but more focused on the plants and animals of the cooler uplands than the aquatic ecology of the flats. Tambopata is reported to have over 1,200 types of butterflies, 600 species of birds, 150 varieties of dragonflies, 135 kinds of ants, around 200 reptiles and amphibians, 100 mammal species. Around a dozen separate ecosystems exist in the park. Access can easily be arranged in Puerto Maldonaldo.

The route back to Cusco by land is lengthy, but well served by public transport. It remains in the lowlands, following the Río Inamburi for much of its length. These areas have been severely impacted by smallholder goldmines and land clearance. There are many settlements, but the road passes Loromayo just before it diverges. A truly dreadful road goes South West to Puno, whilst the other branch heads North towards Cusco. This remains level for another hour, to Quincemil, before winding up into the Cordillera Vilcanota. Here, it threads through semi-arid puna with increasingly fine views of the Cordillera's snow peaks. (Trekking in these is described here.)

The first major town is Ocongate, which is the usual jumping-off point to the Ausangate trail in the Cordillera. It has regular public transport to Cusco, as well as adequate hotels and some trekking support, such as mules, guides and basic food; but do not expect to be able equip yourself for high altitudes. It takes around one to two hours to get to Cusco from Ocongate.

In Madre de Dios

The area appears to have been settled by human beings for many thousands of years. Settled civilisations which have left carved stones and other artefacts existed on the Palotoa, Shinkebenia and Urubamba rivers. These peoples are known as the Arahuacos, some of whom survive today as groups such as the Machiguengas. The Inca knew them as warlike, and attributed strange powers to them. It has to be said that they also saw them as sub-human, and regarded the entire selva region as an ocean of corruption lapping at their doors.

Click here to see a series of images In fact, the indigenous tribes developed quite complex social systems and understanding of their environment. The viewpoint is, however, one of mutual support rather than one of exploitation. For example, the spirit of healing which attaches itself to a healer is called a Watopakeri. It represents balance: between emotion and calm, life and death, feeding on and providing to other forms of life. It also stands for the relationship between past generations, those alive and dealing with it and those yet to come. It is also an intercessor and a gateway between people alive and cosmic or elemental forces that manage the balances in earthly affairs.

Shamans who manage these interactions often use drugs, of which the best known is ayahuasca, a decoction derived from - amongst other plants - the Banisteropsis vine. The resulting hallucinations both make the shaman's "guide animals" more tangible, but also give concrete form to the imbalances and affected elemental spirits - apus - which may have a role to play.

Healers also use a wide range of straight-forward herbal medicines, and the Fundación Peruana para la Conservación de la Naturaleza has been set up to evaluate these and help to create a market for them. Some examples of plants so identified that give objective and repeatable results are:

Current native groups are extremely heterogeneous, including as well the Amaralari, Arasaeri, Huachiperi, Kisambaeri, Pukirieri, Sapiteri, Toyoeri, Wachipari, Arawak and Piro-Mashko. These live in largely isolated communities, with fewer mission schools and transportation than typifies Amazonas, for example. Many now shrink from contact with the outside world, not least due to the catastrophic impact of the rubber boom in the Nineteenth century and current gold mining and lumber extraction practices.

The Huachiperi have an interesting explanation for the diversity of peoples and wildlife in the world. This is the story of the Wanamey tree. A primordial, innocent humanity began to fall into bad ways: killings, destruction of the forest. It became known that the world would be destroyed in a great fire, and that the only way to survive was in the Wanamey tree. The seed of this was placed in a virgin's womb by a parrot, and she was to bear the tree that was to be the saviour of all the races on Earth. She gave birth, and a vast tree grew up, dominating everything.

The promised fire arrived, and the people fled into the many branches of the tree. There they lived for many years while the fire burned below, living on the fruits which the tree provided. Stinging insects caused the evil people to fall off into the flames below. Animals, too, dispersed into the branches of the tree. Finally, when the flames died down and fine flowers appeared, releasing the pretty insects and hummingbirds of the forest. As the people climbed down, so they took up different ways of life. In this way, the many races of humanity and of the animals arose. The white races came down last and, because there was no land left, they had to settle in cities. That is why they cannot travel about the forest on their own, but only in cars and other machines. Soon, there will be another great fire, and we shall all live or die in a new Wanamey tree.

Spanish explorers - attracted by the alluvial gold in the Río Madre de Dios - were killed in some number by the local tribes, by each other and by endemic disease. However, Juan Maldonaldo penetrated some distance with a force of 250 men in 1567. Much later - in 1861 - one of his descendants, Faustino Maldonaldo, traversed the region into Brazil and explored some of the rivers. Puerto Maldonaldo was founded in 1912, and named in their honour. Its patronal is celebrated on July 12th in honour of this event.

Most transport in the region is conducted by river. Regular vessels ply up and down the major rivers, and there are many small-to-tint boats with which you can engage if you want to fish, potter about or travel into the interior. The presence of gold, and the proximity of several cocaine-producing areas has made the remote regions a dangerous area for single travellers, although the main road and river routes are as safe as anywhere in the country. The trip up-river from Puerto Maldonaldo to Manú will take you past many camps in which people are panning for gold, as well as a dozen communities and settlements.

Once one gets away from the cool, misty ceja de selva, the climate is universally hot an humid, although nowhere near as extreme as Iquitos. The area receives 1-3 metres of rain per annum. The temperature usually remains within 22-27C, and humidity is high. The complex network of rivers are subject to flooding, and much of the lower terrain is várzea, or annually-flooded semi-swamp, usually supporting stands of trees through which one can navigate with a boat in season. The soils are thin and impoverished with minerals, and many organisms survive by virtue of their ability to minimise their need for fertilisers and micronutrients. White sand areas support sparse growth, and it is here that the bulk of endemic species tend to be concentrated.

Click here to see a series of images The bulk of the forest is low-lying and flat, consisting of repeatedly-terraced coarse sand and grit. Levels of fertility are not high. The canopy is, however, mostly closed, making it easy to walk in the forest proper. Only the river verges are chocked with spiny under-story plants. The main canopy trees are castanas (Berthlletia excelsa) and other emergent trees of the same family, Lecythidaceae. These stand erect and are usually free of lianas and epiphytes. This is not a place for orchid fanciers, as the density and diversity is surprisingly low.

Economically important tree species include rubber (Hevea brasiliensis), mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), balsam wood (Myroxylon balsamum), the tagua nut (Phytelephas microcarpa) and the strychnine-yielding Strychnos asperula.

Extensive areas - including some of the park regions - are rather distinct. Here, the land is much less even and trees are more thinly spaced. An under-story of palmettos, spiny bamboo (Guadua spp.) make access difficult. Where trees cease, this under story presents a thicket, mixed with vines.

The river banks are matted with creepers, and with isolated stands of swamp palms (Mauritia flexuosa or Jessenia bataua), known locally as (aguajales). These are home to many of the larger birds. The strange hoatzins - birds with vestigial thumbs protruding forward from their wings, spectacular crests and an unspeakable odour - are often found in these.

Areas of bare bank attract many animals to clay seams. Many tropical plants secrete toxins to keep off predators, and herbivorous birds and animals use clay to absorb these from their stomachs. Macaws and parrots, in particular, descend in their hundreds on favoured sites, known as colpas. The Inca love of feathers was supplied from traps based around these.

The main reserves in the area are the following:

The Tambopata-Candamo covers 3.7 million hectares covering the watershed of the Tavara, Candamo and Tambopata rivers. It was created in 1990, and is unusual to the degree to which local people have been involved in its management. There efforts are needed as it is under siege from gold miners and loggers. This huge area includes highland ranges and deep selva. It has the largest area of undisturbed cloud forest in the world. As mentioned earlier, it has an extraordinary range of plant and animal species within it. There are thought to be at least 10,000 types of plant growing in the reserve. The 1,300 bird species include 32 parrots, around a tenth of all those known in the world. It is flanked by the 10,000 hectare Ese'eja Native Community.

The sheer scale of the park made it hard to manage as a single unit. In 1993, it was subdivided into five categories of land, including the completely uninhabited and protected 350,000 hectare National Park now known as the Bahuaja-Sonene.

The Tambopata-Candamo is less accessible and less well known than the smaller Reserva de la Biósfera del Manú, which nonetheless covers a vast 1.9 million hectares. Within this, there are three sub-units: the national park, which extends to 1.5 million hectares and which is closed to all by scientific activity, the zona reservada which covers quarter of a million hectares and is accessible to tourists, and an area called the Bajo Manú. This last covers 90,000 hectares and is dedicated to local communities. travellers require a permit from the Dirección del Parque Nacional, best acquired in Cusco. A trip will take a minimum of a week, and you absolutely must be prepped with anti-malarial drugs before you visit the region.

The reserve has seven separate river systems that run through it: the Manú, Tambopata, Madre de Dios, La Torre, Manuripe, Las Piedras and Tahuamanu rivers. These expand into a series of lagoons, each full of a huge range of fish and stocked with insects - over 120 species of dragonfly alone! - birds and other organisms. Some of the larger of these are the Valencia, Copa Manu, Sandoval, La Pastora, Tambopata, Madre de Dios and Cocococha lagoons. Valencia is, for example, around four hours by river from Puerto Maldonaldo.

The Manú reserve as a whole is thought to hold over 3000 species of plant, 1000 bird species - including seven Macaw species and vast flocks of multi-coloured parrots - and over 200 mammals. There are known to be over one hundred reptiles and a similar number of amphibians. There are also thirteen primate species known in the park area. This said, deep local studies have shown levels of biodiversity and endemicism that, if extended to the reserve as a whole, would greatly extend these numbers. A single tree was found to have over two hundred species of epiphyte on it, for example. Around 10% of the world's plant species are thought to exist within Madre de Dios. The reserve was declared a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1973.

Please click on the picture to see the panorama full size.

In 2001, Perú established a concession on the Los Amigos river reserve, allowing a consortium to manage the region on their behalf with an eye to conservation. Other, private reserves have also been established with an eye to the tourist potential or the area. As logging is beginning to eat into the forest in this area, whatever protection can be found is plainly desirable.

The tiny Pampas del Heath sanctuary covers only 110 hectares on the Río Heath. It was established recently to guard the lobo de crin or wirehair wolf.

The distant Alto Purús reserve was established in 2000, and covers over 2.7 million hectares. It is located between the Manú park and the border with Brazil. Nine tenths of it is covered with tall (30m) forest, through which run huge, slow rivers. The bulk of the cover is provided by Tessaria integrifolia, Gynerium sagittatum and Cecropia membranacea, making it very different from the Madre de Dios plain forest described above. This area is undergoing intensive study, but remains extremely hard to reach and anyway closed to travellers.


Completely different fruit, distinct sources of starches and the accessibility of river fish has created a distinctive regional cuisine.